Here’s the difference winning a league title makes to a team like Dublin.
On a Saturday afternoon in Croke Park last July they made an ignominious exit from the championship to Antrim, conceding seven successive points to lose by one. It was an almighty collapse and instantly they were dismissed to the ‘too brittle’ files, labelled without another thought.
Less than 12 months on at the same venue, an eight-point lead with 10 minutes remaining was a cushion that should have seen them home comfortably, especially with an extra man courtesy of Derek Molloy’s second yellow card two minutes earlier.
But within eight minutes, 14-man Offaly had pared that lead back down to two points with a momentum that Dublin struggled to interrupt.
There wasn’t a Dublin mind in the paltry crowd of 14,302 (well short of the 30,000 expected in the wake of the league final) that didn’t wander back to the Antrim game and fear the worst.
This time, however, they were able to assert themselves and break the cycle of helplessness that afflicted them so badly last year. For that you have to chalk it down to experience and their new-found status as a team that can clinch a deal.
Peadar Carton may have been privately miffed not to start the league final and to miss out again yesterday, but his grievance reinforced his determination to make an impression off the bench. When the chance presented itself on 69 minutes he found space and finished impressively to the net, taking the sting out of Offaly’s revival.
For Anthony Daly, the growing sense of deja vu was all too prevalent as Offaly came storming back.
“I’d be a liar if I said the Antrim thing didn’t flash through the head there. Certainly when they came back to two points,” said Daly. “You’re saying ‘somebody go up and win a ball or win a free or something.'”
It was Carton who obliged and Daly acknowledged the intervention. “To come in and win three balls and get the goal, that’s what it’s about.
“Fellas keeping the chin up and waiting to get their chance and being patient. And that’s what he did there.”
For Offaly, it was agonisingly close to what would have been a significant upset. “I honestly thought we were going to win it at that stage,” said Joe Dooley. “Probably the extra man killed us. Conal Keaney slipped back and he picked up a couple of balls and they got the goal off one of his clearances. The extra man really punished us in the end.”
It should have been a more comfortable passage. The Offaly camp was like a war zone all week with injuries piling up. They could point to at least six potential starters who were absent, two long-term. When Brian Carroll limped out after 11 minutes — he had been doubtful in the build-up — their problems were compounded.
Through gritted teeth they kept in touch. Dublin led by six twice in the first half, but when Shane Dooley turned inside Niall Corcoran and beat Gary Maguire on his near side on 35 minutes, the interval lead was just 1-9 to 1-8.
Dublin themselves have significant injury problems and the spine of their defence was quite vulnerable without Tomas Brady and Joey Boland.
Into the breach stepped Liam Rushe as the team’s latest centre-back, but it was a struggle for the 21-year-old as a recent illness caught up with him.
“His legs were gone to jelly there at the finish,” Daly admitted. “He did a tremendous job for us in a position he wouldn’t be that familiar with at this level anyway.
“We were makeshift a bit at the back. Losing your two main men like that. People down in Clare would be saying to me ‘ye have the confidence there now.’ I’d be saying ‘if you took Lohan and McMahon out of our team (in the ’90s) and there would be a fair hole down the middle.’ It was a fair hole to fill.”
Offaly did damage down that channel. Joe Bergin slipped over three points and the physical presence of Ger Healion was always a distraction.
Shane Dooley also profited and helped himself to 1-13, 1-2 from play, the bulk of a tally that Offaly might have expected to win the game with in other circumstances.
As much as experience and being winners marks the divide between Dublin 2010 and Dublin 2011, this quarter-final offered more compelling evidence of the difference Keaney makes.
The focus of so much physical attention from Offaly players, Keaney registered just one point but it was his workrate and ball-winning ability that underlined him as Dublin’s leader. So many scores went through him or came off him — frees that Paul Ryan converted easily were presented by Keaney’s graft for hard yards.
With numerical advantage he drifted back to clear a few important balls at the end when Rushe was out on his feet.
Oisin Gough and Niall Corcoran were also in top form in defence, but too many of Dublin’s other big players just weren’t consistently involved enough.
“I think the sending off was the signal for our boys to switch off and say ‘ah, we’ve won it now’. That’s a learning curve. We have to keep at that and drilling it in,” suggested Daly.
Dublin’s third quarter was easily their best spell and when Gough and Alan McCrabbe combined to set up David O’Callaghan in the move of the match on 52 minutes for a 1-18 to 1-10 lead, they looked every inch a class side.
The conclusion will pinprick burgeoning expectations ever so slightly and that may be no bad thing. They have a status but they are still a team in education. This was a very tough grind that they will appreciate in time.
Scorers — Dublin: P Ryan 1-8 (8f, 1-0 pen), P Carton 1-0, A McCrabbe 0-3, C McCormack, R O’Dwyer, D O’Callaghan 0-2 each, S Lambert, S Durkan, D Plunkett, C Keaney 0-1 each. Offaly: S Dooley 1-13 (0-11f), J Bergin 0-3, C Mahon, D Hayden, C Egan, D Currams 0-1 each.
Dublin — G Maguire 7; O Gough 8, N Corcoran 6, P Kelly 6; J McCaffrey 6, L Rushe 5, S Durkan 7; M O’Brien 5, A McCrabbe 7; R O’Dwyer 7, C McCormack 6, C Keaney 8; P Ryan 6, D O’Callaghan 6, D Plunkett 6. Subs: S Lambert 6 for O’Brien (h-t), D Treacy 5 for Plunkett 56, D O’Dwyer for McCormack (59), P Carton for McCrabbe (63), D Curtin for Rushe (68).
Offaly — J Dempsey 6; M Verney 7, D Kenny 7, S Egan 6; D Hayden 7, D Morkan 6, E Martin 7; C Mahon 7, B Carroll; D Currams 6, G Healion 6, C Egan 5; J Bergin 7, S Dooley 8, D Molloy 6. Subs: C Parlon 7 for Carroll (11), J Mulrooney 6 for Egan (56).
Ref — J Sexton (Cork).
– Colm Keys
Article Source: Irish Independent